13 You will have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. 15 But when He who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. 18 Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 But I did not see another one of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) (Gal1:13-20)
Called through God’s grace
Paul was conscious that God had set him apart at birth to be “ἀπόστολος” – a delegate or messenger of God, and that message was the Gospel or “Good News”. Paul does not speak of being called to God’s grace but through God’s grace (v15). He knows his election was entirely unmerited – he had persecuted the church and had wished to destroy it (v13). But having been elected, that is where the “all of grace” paradigm ceases. As I highlighted from Paul’s previous epistle, the Christian is set a course to run which is not dependent on grace alone but requires personal discipline and effort. What? ” Did you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win!” (1Cor9:24).
Luther’s notion that salvation consists of “being certain of God’s favour” can hardly be squared with Paul’s teaching and still more obviously diverges from that of Jesus (e.g. Mt 5:28-30). Jesus makes clear that personal effort and discipline is required to keep the procreated intellectual vessel (body and brain) in check. But so does Paul: “I keep a tight control on my body, and bring it into subjection: so that having preached to others, I myself should not be disqualified”. (1Cor9:27).
In terms of being certain of God’s favour, Paul had no assurance of future glory until he was virtually on his deathbed, knowing at that point that he had completed his course (2Tim4:7-8). In the meantime: “Brothers and sisters, I do not regard myself as having taken hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Likewise, all who have been perfected should have such an attitude; if in any respect you have a different attitude, may God reveal that to you as well” (Phil3:13-15).
In terms of what had been disclosed to the apostle, God had not only revealed His Son to Paul but in Paul (ἐν ἐμοὶ v16). That was reflected in the fact that Christ was evident in every facet of his life and behaviour. For Paul was no longer “the chief of sinners”; the context makes clear that had pertained to his previous activity as Saul of Tarsus (1Tim1vv13&15). As Paul he had told the Corinthian churches regarding himself and his fellow workers “our exalting is in the testimony of our conscience that in godly sincerity and purity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God we have conducted ourselves in the world” (2Cor1:12).
Paul’s personal testimony
Paul could claim to be as valid an apostle as those Jesus had appointed during His earthly ministry. But as the thirteenth faithful apostle there was a greater spiritual/supernatural element both to his appointment and tutelage. For he had been commissioned by the risen and glorified Lord on the road to Damascus. We are told he then spent time in Arabia, the details concerning which have not been provided but no doubt would have involved further revelations. As a result, he did not need to “consult with flesh and blood” (v16) concerning the message he was to preach. Remarkably, it was a further three years before he acquainted himself with Cephas (“the Rock”, i.e. Peter – v18) and to a lesser extent with James. As we shall see, there are aspects of the Gospel that even Peter had not fully appreciated which led to Paul needing to reprove him (chapter two).
Dire consequences of misreading Paul
More fundamentally for Christians today, there are aspects of Paul’s teaching in Galatians, especially the whole area of what he meant by “being justified by faith rather than through the deeds of Law”, a misreading of which has resulted in profound doctrinal errors being incorporated into Western theology. The leading protagonist had been Catholic Bishop Augustine of Hippo. Regarded by the later Protestant Reformers and consequently by many Evangelicals today as Paul’s most faithful interpreter of the first millennium, the African Bishop’s misreading of Paul’s teaching on law and grace, shaped by over-reactions to the errors of Pelagius [note 1] obscured the bi-fold nature of God’s economy of grace and the vastly more benevolent providence that flows from it. The angel’s message of joy for the world (Lk2:10) had, in terms of providential outcomes, been turned into a cosmic horror show.
It was primarily through Augustine’s influence that the existence of the human spirit and the natural law related to it, largely accepted by the pre-Nicene Church, came to be rejected by the mid-first millennium, certainly in the more dogmatic formularies of the Latin Church. Augustine concluded it was God’s wish that the bulk of humanity remain under condemnation, destined for eternal torment “in order that it might be shown what had been due to all” (De Civitates Dei XXI chap. 12). For he had got right the fact that Scripture indicates that proportionally few would come to a saving knowledge of Christ whilst in mortal flesh. Paul’s language throughout, including references alluded to above indicate that to be the case. Such is borne out by the subsequent course of cultural and religious history. Hence the vital need at this time to set out the context of gospel salvation within overall providence. With God’s help I believe such has been provided in The Little Book of Providence. (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.)
Note#1: I am in the process of demonstrating that both Pelagius and Augustine were flawed in their respective assertions regarding free will and original sin. Fallen human nature is inherently corrupt as Augustine asserted but it is not the God-given soul that is the SOURCE of the problem but the temporary procreated intellectual vessel (body and brain – cf. Rom7:22-23). Such is the nature and consequence of original sin – not the imputation of Adam’s guilt to every soul such that even infants who die unbaptized must share the misery of the damned: “experiencing sensual pain through eternity, albeit to a mild degree” (Augustine again). In terms of free will, Pelagius was right to assert that man by nature is perfectly capable of choosing to perform actions that are righteous and pleasing to God (cf. Mt25:40). That is in view of his spirit-derived faculties, especially the conscience (cf. Rom2:14,15). However, as Paul also observed in Rom7, the spirit (or inner-man) is ever inclined to give in to the flesh (“the body of this death”) unless empowered by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore only the Christian is enabled “to possess his vessel in sanctity and honour” (1Thes4:4). And only the Christian can be saved (Rom5:10 & 7:23-24) – free to serve the living God even whilst in mortal flesh, during which time he/she can be fitted for eternal glory.
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